Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures after releasing his party BJP’s election manifesto for the April/May general election, in New Delhi, India, April 8, 2019. — Reuters

What do the Indian election results say about voter sentiment towards Modi?

The Indian voter, who, with the brave and powerful act of casting her vote, reaffirmed what underlines India and its constitution — a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic.
Published June 7, 2024

At the peak of election campaigning in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi commented in an interview to a mainstream news channel that while his mother was alive, he believed he was “born biologically”. After she died, however, he became convinced that God had sent him and the kind of energy he possessed could not have come from a “biological body”.

The comment reflected a peak moment in the electoral rhetoric that seemed to reflect two wholly different approaches throughout the campaign process.

On the one hand was the opposition that had coined itself ‘INDIA’ and comprised pan-India political parties such as the Indian National Congress, as well as several key regional parties including, among others, the All India Trinamool Congress present in the state of West Bengal, the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) in Tamil Nadu and the Samajwadi Party with a strong presence in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The election plank for these parties was twofold — addressing India’s acute jobs crisis and the view that India’s very constitution was under threat.

On the other hand, the ruling BJP which now has 10 years of governance to speak of, chose to double down on religion and the cult-like status they believed Prime Minister Modi held. The party spoke of every seat being a ‘vote for Modi’, their success in building a Ram temple in Ayodhya and speeches by the prime minister cautioned voters about the dangers of letting ‘infiltrators’ corner the country’s welfare schemes — a clear tilt to the Muslim community in India that accounts for about 15 per cent of the country’s population.

So which approach resonated with the Indian voter?

Some facts as they present themselves, post-election, point to the choices made. Across over 300 constituencies that can be categorised as rural, nearly one out of every two constituencies voted for change. In many ways, this reflected what a large swathe of India has been facing — a searing unemployment crisis, rural distress visible in both falling wages, rising household costs and deepening economic inequity.

Over the years, the government’s approach towards the farmers’ community has been adversarial, to say the least. Farmers’ protests saw demonstrators being barred from entering the capital and being attacked with tear gas shells and baton charges. Their vote was also a culmination point of two deeply problematic decisions by the BJP government — demonetisation, which bludgeoned India’s cash-reliant informal economy, and a snap lockdown decision during the Covid-19 pandemic, which left millions of migrant workers, quite literally, on the streets.

The other key factor that seems to have been on the Indian voter’s mind is the constitution. The ruling BJP elbowed through a decision to revoke the special status, or autonomy, granted under Article 370 of the Indian constitution to Jammu and Kashmir and The Citizenship Amendment Bill — a controversial citizenship law that offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

While these decisions did see favour among many BJP loyalists, they sparked fears around what else could now be up for change in the Indian constitution. Could the party, for instance, tinker with special rights accorded to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes — communities that rely heavily on the constitution for social, economic, and political guarantees? Data from a traditional BJP bastion state, Uttar Pradesh, points that way, where the Samajwadi Party secured 65pc of the scheduled caste votes this election — a whopping 21pc increase from their 2019 showing.

And finally, communal divide.

The BJP has been expressly clear about its intent to build a Ram Temple in Ayodhya for many decades now. In the months leading up to the elections, there were elaborate inaugural ceremonies held in Ayodhya, involving the prime minister and in full attendance, India’s corporate elite, a host of film celebrities and several other circles of influence. It is ironic that the BJP saw losses in both Ayodhya and Varanasi — regions that are crucial to the party’s Hindutva project. Faizabad, a constituency under which the Ram Temple falls was won by the Samajwadi Party’s Awadhesh Prasad Singh, a Dalit fielded from a general category seat.

A chance for the opposition

In the aftermath of the election results that now see the BJP playing the delicate balance of running a coalition government, a few strands emerge.

First, the ruling government will now have to make many more accommodations based on the ambitions of its coalition partners, both around policy decisions and key ministerial positions.

Second, the Indian National Congress must double down on its resurgence and focus on building support ground up. Its cadre has been rejuvenated with this success, and the only way to strengthen its position will be to deepen grassroots connections with voters.

There is also a larger takeaway beyond the Congress party.

The most vital organ of a successful democracy is a strong, confident opposition. In the 2023 winter session of parliament, 78 MPs were suspended in a single day, taking the total number of suspended MPs in that session to 92 — a figure never seen before in the history of India’s parliament. It is now time to bring back the safety levers that ensure the governance of a country as diverse as India and reflect all voices.

And third, mainstream news media in India, that had contorted itself into a mockery over the last few years, saw a complete collapse of faith, reaching break-point in its exit poll exercise. Poll after poll proclaimed a sweeping win for the BJP, taking it beyond the 400-seat mark in a 543-seat assembly. In reality, the BJP has fallen short of even the halfway mark, winning just 240 seats, rendering it deeply reliant on its two key coalition partners. Exit polls create higher television ratings, a media circus and an occasion to please those in power. What they have not done — either in the exit polls or in their coverage of the elections — is provide audiences with a true reflection of events.

There is much to mend for a society that has been ripped apart by communal hate, increasing income inequality and a deep distrust of state institutions. But there is only one winner.

The Indian voter, who, with the brave and powerful act of casting her vote, reaffirmed what underlines India and its constitution — a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic committed to justice, equality and liberty for the people.

Header image: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures after releasing his party BJP’s election manifesto for the April/May general election, in New Delhi, India, April 8, 2019. — Reuters/ File